In Depth: Making Sense of the 'Decline' of Facebook - Network Week


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW 2008. Photo by Kris Krug.

When the pundit gallery discusses the ‘decline’ of Facebook, it speaks to an old truism about empires — that being, they never really go away. Perhaps that’s the pivotal bragging right Mark Zuckerberg earned during Act III of the Facebook story you won’t find in The Social Network.

Consider how Bill Gates and Microsoft are thought of today. By all accounts, the one-time empire of operating systems has seen better days; days of antitrust litigation, days of Windows 98, days where not even Apple wanted anything to do with Steve Jobs. Perhaps most damning are the long-gone days when the word “Vista” wasn’t synonymous with inconvenience and poor planning.

Though Microsoft has declined, it has not disappeared. The company remains a worthy competitor in the mobile market, and maintains a formidable place among entertainment consoles. Whether any new operating systems are as widely used as Windows 98 once was, or as emphatically despised as Vista, Microsoft systems will come standard on any brand of PC.

Further, Microsoft shouldn’t be thought of as down-for-the-count in terms of a potential comeback. In the eyes of many, quite the opposite is true. Examining its competition, the tenure of Apple CEO Tim Cook is mired with textbook missteps that would no doubt have the late perfectionist’s perfectionist rolling in his grave.

Which brings us to Facebook. Maybe its single greatest accomplishment – and no small feat for the post dot-com boom – is that we’re able to talk about a single website along side software and tech giants Microsoft and Apple. Also, as Jobs once remarked in admiration of the platform, it’s still the most identifiable name in social media.

Examining the successes of different social media platforms, though, you don’t have to be a teenager to see that the sun could very well be setting on the Facebook Era.

If you’ve never heard of the service WeChat, chances are you’re a proud high school graduate, probably of several years (if not decades). With its mobile text and messaging communications service, WeChat provides the basic means of instant socialite diplomacy to today’s teenagers that Facebook usurped from AOL Instant Messenger.

An interesting way to interpret these platforms’ engagement is their keen awareness of teenage taste dynamics and consequent cases of exodus. When the AIM crowd traded in their screen names for profile pictures, they were looking for convenience. However, after Facebook introduced a chat feature in 2008, the Buddy List became obsolete; anyone you needed to talk to was already in one place. Surrendering one’s identity was a small price to pay for such instant connectivity – without foreseeing Facebook’s opportunist efforts in collecting personal information to use for profitable advertising interest.

In the time since, privacy has become a precious and quickly fleeting attribute. In turn, you don’t need to go searching through a desert to find convenience (though it might be difficult if you’re still using Vista). WeChat understands this and fills the void, knowing all the while it need not do more.

Then Twitter came along as the undeniable victor in the war over tapping into the internet’s great collective unconscious. Many also point to Tumblr as another usurper of the Facebook throne, especially among teens. Though, the case is hard to make since the expressionistic platform offers little in the way of networking. Then again, what is more immediately important to a teenager? Finding a job after college or expressing an undying love of every remotely famous person from Harry Styles to Roger Waters?

Lots of especially crafty and flamboyant Tumblr pages echo the same e-cavewall painting ethos that erstwhile Myspace accounts displayed in their prime. Such aesthetically creative customization, however, was never something Facebook granted its users – an aspect that set it apart from Myspace. The closest Facebook ever came was a short lived app that let friends ‘spray-paint’ each other’s walls using a glorified version of Microsoft Paint that was just as much fun to play with.

Aside from their no-brainer acquisition of Instagram, Facebook has never claimed to be anything more creative than their name. While exclusivity and youth are essential to Facebook’s “soul” and origin story, it’s also important to keep in mind the audience that made the company what it is today: college students. The platform’s fundamental age demographic represents a vastly different social landscape than high school, one where convenience is just beginning to trump the need for identity.

Facebook originally denied – but later came to realize – its stagnating demographics among teens. By every objective measure the media could use to estimate, the company had fallen from a peak.

Likewise, Microsoft had to come to terms with losing their spot at the top when they were found guilty of anti-competitive practices. But while Bill Gates realized that world domination just wasn’t in the cards, or the law, the end of Facebook’s golden age also meant the end of an identity crisis. As the tables turned, Facebook seemed to discover — entirely of their own volition — just how unfeasible it is to maintain a platform that’s meant to be enjoyed by everyone.

Heavy lies the crown, as they say. After all, everyone is only a slightly less finicky demographic to please than teenagers.